Review in Sewanee Review

Matthew Burkhalter. “Honoring, Reinventing, and Creating German Masters.” Sewanee Review 122, no. 2 (2014): xxiv-xxvii.

[The Sewanee Review is a literary journal established in 1892 and the oldest continuously published periodical of its kind in the United States.[1] It incorporates original fiction and poetry, as well as essays, reviews, and literary criticism. It notably published five stories by Flannery O’Connor, the dramatic version of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, and Cormac McCarthy’s first published work—a selection from his first novel, The Orchard Keeper. Other noted contributors include Hannah ArendtW. H. Auden,Saul BellowWendell BerryBertolt BrechtAlbert CamusJames Dickey, Andre Dubus II, T. S. EliotWilliam FaulknerShelby Foote,Robert Graves, Merrill Joan Gerber, John HainesDonald HallSeamus HeaneyGeorge V. HigginsMadison JonesX. J. Kennedy,Thomas KinsellaC. S. LewisF. O. MatthiessenHoward NemerovJoyce Carol OatesSaint-John PerseKatherine Anne Porter,Ezra PoundWallace StevensPeter TaylorDylan ThomasRichard Tillinghast, and Eudora Welty. -From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia]


David B. Dennis has written a compelling study of articles published in the cultural section of the most widely read newspaper in Nazi Germany, the Völkischer Beobachter (Folkish Observer). His source, much of it assessed for the first time in English, runs to 1,600 articles from the VB on literature, painting, music, and philosophy. Dennis, a history professor at Loyola University Chicago, whose previous publications include Beethoven in German Politics, 1870–1989 (1996), approaches the VB’s cultural pages with interdisciplinary élan. He skillfully focuses on the sophistry employed by a single newspaper in reshaping Germans’ understanding of Western cultural history. Its contributors created a pantheon of German masters by selectively showcasing, and editing, particular artists’ careers and works to illuminate, as they saw it, Western culture’s culmination in National Socialism.

Forty-one percent of the cultural section’s authors (the largest part of identified contributors) were academics, most of them musicologists and music historians, together with specialists in literature, history, art history, and philosophy. These authors rarely betrayed their readers with fabricated scholarship. To the contrary criticism revolved around a process of “selection and omission,” “of emphasis and diminution.” It was important, too, that the articles were clearly written (“obvious, proven, and historically substantiated”). Furthermore Dennis points out that the titles of many articles—e.g., “Goethe’s Ideal of the Führer,” “Heinrich Heine as Communist Agitator,” “Richard Wagner’s Fight for the Volkish Idea”—were probably sufficiently communicable to most readers without their needing to read farther. The VB had the virtue of being academically legitimate while being appropriately völkisch. [End Page xxiv]

Thus, under the editorship of Alfred Rosenberg, Nazism’s chief philosopher, the VB’s critical program was not wholly propagandistic. Certainly it was complicit in denigrating democratic and parliamentary values, but its manipulation of the arts also legitimized the Nazi movement culturally and intellectually. By setting German Kultur in opposition to the crude superficial forces of Zivilisation (embodied by the aesthetics of the Weimar Republic), the VB played a critical role in the formulation of the Nazi Weltanschauung: “It is apparent that those who provided these interpretations of Western culture did not conceive them as just ‘reflective’ of Nazi ideology or instrumental tools of Nazi politics, but as core components of Nazi thought.” Dennis adopts an interpretive framework akin to George L. Mosse’s canonical The Nationalization of the Masses (1975) which showed how Nazi culture was forged through repetition (“propagandizing with a hammer”) and invoked and practiced liturgically, making it resistant to rationalization or intellectualism.

Nazi culture as depicted in the VB, like Nazi ideology in general, was fluid and revolved around a canon of masters and their masterworks. Depending on the circumstances, their works and existing information about their lives were magnified or diminished. German masters were funneled into a matrix of racial Germanness, Volkstümlichkeit (folkishness), nationalism, and anti-Semitism. In the first case art was biologized: Mozart’s “blood heritage” (his parents’ mixed regional bloodlines—“heavy” Swabian, “vivacious” Allemannisch, and so on) explained his musical personality—seriousness mixed with rococo playfulness. While “great men of the Nordic west” were ushered into the pantheon, simultaneously they had to remain völkisch, accessible, and rough-hewn. The northern Renaissance painter Albrecht Altdorfer’s “naïve and elementary” art represented the “purest embodiment of Bavarian folk style.” The composer Anton Bruckner, praised for his folksiness as a south German Catholic and a heavy drinker, became a romantic pendant to Altdorfer. Shakespeare was reduced to a Szenenerschütterer (“great scene-shaker”); the political struggles in the germanized bard’s tragedies convey “a chain of apparently aimless crimes and bloody tests of strength” signifying “the fate and struggle of the Volk.” Aquinas’s Summa contra Gentiles was presented as a scholastic antecedent to the Nuremberg laws, because the saint discouraged Jews’ holding administrative positions in civil or religious society.

Persistent decontextualization and simplification were the engines of such legerdemain. Nietzsche’s rich poetic and aphoristic corpus was reduced to antidemocratic grumbling; his tendency toward aristocratic thinking was squared with the völkisch ethos by differentiating between his distaste for the mob (“social illness”) and his supposed alignment with the Volk (“national health” and a manly “will to power”). Consistency was rarely achieved, especially when modern figures were discussed. Social realism (“dispassionate literalism”) was decried as proto-Leninist in Tolstoy’s oeuvre, yet the entirety of Dickens’s Oliver Twist was reprinted in serialized form. [End Page xxv] (Fagin, like Shakespeare’s Shylock and Wagner’s Mime, was an attractive anti-Semitic stereotype.) While impressionism (“positivist superficiality”) was rejected, the expressionist Edvard Munch was appropriated for his Nordic “sturdiness,” lack of intellectualism, and projection of “spiritual reality and psychic strength.” Conversely Albert Einstein was attacked for the “superficial gloss” of his “card-trick” theory of relativity, which was pilloried as egghead prattle. Theoretical physics fell within the detested boundaries of “l’art pour l’art.”

Procrustean activities such as these continued until hardly any significant European cultural figure had neither been incorporated into (Dante, Dürer, Rembrandt, the older Michelangelo, Montesquieu, Schiller, Fichte, Hölderlin, Schubert, Kierkegaard, Böcklin, Courbet, Sibelius) nor excluded from (Spinoza, Newton, Ibsen, Bizet, Hofmannsthal, Puccini, Mahler, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Grosz) the pantheon. Richard Wagner stood at its apex with 243 articles devoted to him in the VB; Beethoven, most popular after Wagner, was Nazified in 116 articles. As the alpha and omega of Nazi culture, Wagner became the “ingenious creator of phenomenal works of art,” the “presentiment and the fulfillment of volkish longing, outlook, and confidence.” Notably Der Ring des Nibelungen, his mammoth four-opera cycle, was interpreted as prophesying every major event in modern German history from the outbreak of the First World War to the aesthetics and decadence of Weimar culture to, most important, “the brutal measures required to restore the German Volk.” Wagner, the cultural figure most frequently associated with the führer, became the Volk, Germanness, nationalism, and anti-Semitism incarnate.

Dennis maintains neutrality throughout Inhumanities, addressing the perpetual fitting of creators and their works (some more easily than others) to the Nazi master standard rather than commenting on the accuracy of the VB authors’ conclusions. This may or may not be a weakness, but his work includes more obvious limitations. Dennis restricts his discussion of Nazi culture to a sphere governed by its panjandrum völkisch theorist, Rosenberg, whose editorializing reflects neither Goebbels’s modernist sympathies during the early years of the regime nor Hitler’s fusion of reactionary sensibilities with modern technology. Power brokering within Germany’s cultural infrastructure (among Rosenberg, Goebbels, Bernhard Rust, Robert Ley, Albert Speer, and their peers) is absent from Dennis’s VB history. Even if the newspaper’s editorship remained ideologically constant, it does not fully represent the regime’s cultural apparatus in miniature. A greater weakness of the study is the relative anonymity of the cultural critics involved. Certain personalities receive bald sketches (e.g., Josef Stolzing, an editor of the cultural section and its most frequent contributor during the 1930s; Hans Severus Ziegler, the curator of the Entartete-Musik exhibition; and Richard Biedrzynski, an art and theater historian and a frequent contributor during the 1940s). Occasional contributors such as Baldur von Schirach, overseer of the Hitler Youth and the Reich’s governor of Vienna, [End Page xxvi] are covered only cursorily. The collective rationale among certain scholars to align themselves with cultural homage, reimagining, and creating; their common educational and professional backgrounds; and their postwar careers, while occasionally glimpsed, would have added an especially welcome dimension to Dennis’s scholarship.

These complaints aside, Dennis focuses on a plethora of personalities— artistic, literary, musical, and philosophical—while cogently assessing the VB’s manipulation of their works. He displays clearly the tireless ability of dedicated scholars, völkisch malcontents, and scientific racists to identify Nazism as an artistic and cultural telos of Western development. Of course even a researcher as skilled as David B. Dennis cannot prove that the VB’s readers were convinced by its arguments, but he shows that its cultural authors believed that their created pantheon of German masters not only legitimized the Nazi movement but comprised its intellectual and historical base. The general reader with a passing interest in Nazism or in any of these Nazified German masters will find Dennis’s work fascinating and accessible. Researchers of Nazi culture will benefit from Dennis’s scholarship for years to come. He should be commended for his labor.



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